The December issue of The Mennonite magazine has an image of Mary and the baby Jesus on the cover with the question: “Mary, model and mother?” This is posed in the form of a question rather than a statement because, admittedly, us Mennonite Anabaptist types have not yet worked out what the place of Mary is in our story. We know that Catholics have always held Mary up as the Blessed Mother, and we know that the early Anabaptists differed from the Roman Catholic Church in a number of their understandings of faith. We have emphasized Jesus as a model for our lives, but what about Mary? This is part of what the essays in this most recent Mennonite issue address. One essay examines the notions of justice and mercy contained in Mary’s Magnificat, the text Brianne read this morning. Another is a spiritual autobiography of a man who learned to sing for joy like Mary, having rediscovered his Anabaptist faith at grad school in the halls of Notre Dame, where Catholic classmates befriended him and enabled him to encounter faith in a new way. The lead article is by Laurie Oswald Robinson who grew up Mennonite but who, after a long spiritual and emotional journey, converted to Roman Catholicism. She writes, “On Easter Vigil 2009, I entered the Catholic Church and finally rested in the arms of Mother Church and its Mother (Mary), who I now recognized as my spiritual mother, too.” Another essay is titled “Mary: Rejoice with the lowly,” and begins: “What happens when you are filled with Jesus, when Jesus grows inside your life? When you are full of Jesus, what do you say?”
The words from this essay help focus the significance that Mary has especially in this season of Advent. During this season, we are all, in a sense, pregnant with expectation, with longing, filled with the seed of Christ that is becoming born through us. No matter what significance Mary has throughout the rest of the year, Mary is the lead character of this drama of Advent – a model and a mother. She teaches us how to yield to God in such a way that Christ is brought into the world through an otherwise ordinary and unspectacular life.
So for this week and next, as we work our way toward Christmas, we will allow Mary to be our primary guide.
For today I would like to do this by way of focusing our thoughts around one word from the Magnificat, the song of praise that Mary sings upon learning of her unlikely pregnancy and confiding in her older relative Elizabeth, who calls her blessed.
The Magnificat begins: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
The word magnify is exactly the right English word to use here. The Greek word it translates is megalunei. To enlarge, to make bigger. Megalunei. To mega-size.
Magnify. To make bigger. Like a magnifying glass. “My soul makes the Lord bigger,” Mary proclaims.
This is a pretty remarkable expression. If we stick with it, that in bearing Christ in her womb Mary’s soul is magnifying the Lord, it seems to put God in a rather awkward position. Of being larger as a result of Mary’s willingness. Of being in need of a soul that will magnify the divine presence. Is God in need of magnificantion? If you want to find God, break out the microscope.
It raises the bigger question of whether or not God needs people to accomplish God’s purposes at all. Is the Divine creative spirit/energy of the universe so helpless that it/he/she is in need of people to magnify its Presence? In need of us to lend a hand to the redeption of the world?
For most of the story of existence, it’s pretty clear that God indeed does not need us. We weren’t needed to trigger the initial flaring forth of the universe from a single point of possibility to an expanding field of actuality. We weren’t needed to turn on the lights in the young universe when the hydrogen atoms congregated together in billions of different gravitational centers, rushing toward each other and reaching temperatures hot enough to kick start fusion, whose waste product is light. “Let there be light,” and the stars obeyed. We weren’t needed when other waste products from stars started bashing into each other to form different planets, hard rocky globes in a sea of empty space. We weren’t needed to call forth the initial life forms in the warm bubbling seas of water of this rocky globe.
God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind: “Where we you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” The obvious implied answer that Job need not even voice is – nowhere. We were not involved. Not needed. Wouldn’t have been able to stand the heat even if we had been needed. Job seeks redemption in the midst of his personal suffering, and all he gets is a lesson in the vastness of the universe and the miniscule scale of his own life. It’s we who are the microscopic ones. You don’t have to zoom out too far into deep space before we’re less than a speck of dust. Barely a blip on the map of time and space. We’re the ones in need of being magnified.
This impulse to start at the beginning, to keep in mind the broad scope of where we come from is the path taken by the Gospel of John, whose Christmas story is like no other. He begins, Genesis like, by stating: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This is the Christmas story for mystics. The word, the light, has always been present. Has always been bringing new things into being. It does this on its own power. And the darkness has not overcome it.
But, lest we get caught up in mystical detachment, in abstract ideas of creation and redemption, justice and mercy, we are quickly brought back down to earth. John soon says: “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us.” Flesh means biology. Flesh means a body. Flesh means personhood embedded in family and culture. For as long as bodies have been available, the Word has always been looking for willing bodies through which to express itself. The Word wants, needs, loves, willing persons, to make itself greater.
The peasant teenage Jewish girl declares: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For the Holy One has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant. The Mighty One has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Within this magnificat is a keen awareness that what is happening through Mary is one in a series of magnifications of God’s name which have happened through the people of Israel, the children of Abraham. Abraham and Sara were two of the bodies of long ago that the Word sought to inhabit, extending the call and the promise of being a blessing to all nations. Their descendants are delivered from slavery in Egypt and called to be a community that lives as free people, free from the external and internal bonds of enslavement. The Hebrew prophets kept alive this vision of Israel as a body of holiness, which magnifies God’s justice and mercy.
Does God need such bodies? The prophet Isaiah says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Perhaps, when Isaiah was first pondering this, he thought: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me? Me? To bind up the brokenhearted? To proclaim liberty, and release to the prisoners? The same Spirit that hovered over the waters of creation and spoke the world into being is now hovering over the prophet, over the people of Israel, over all willing persons, to speak new worlds into being. Worlds where the laws of gravity and thermodynamics and accompanied with the laws of justice and mercy. This is the vocation of the people of Israel. Of Mary. “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
It’s interesting to think about different peoples and cultures as having different gifts of magnification. Different traditions and communities magnify different aspects of God’s being, different facets of reality. Surely one of the vocations of CMF is to magnify the arts, to make them larger, to gather and celebrate Mennonite artists of all kinds. I’m pretty sure we’ll all have opportunity to soon participate in whatever capacity we are able in this work of magnification.
One tradition that we could all benefit from about this time of year is Zen. This is a season when we cram our lives full of many things, but Zen reminds us of the vitality of emptiness. It is a tradition that over the centuries has developed practices of magnifying empty, sacred space. This universe in which we live, we are becoming aware, is mostly empty space. There are vast stretches of space between our planets, light years between stars, and many more light years between galaxies. Emptiness is the case whether you scale up or scale down. Go down into the atom, start looking for something physical, and you again encounter a bunch of empty space. The electrons and nucleus make up a tiny percentage of the space in the atoms. Break out the microscope, or the telescope, and what you’re going to see is a whole bunch of emptiness. So, if existence is made up mostly of empty space, how did my life get so cluttered?!
A few millennia ago, even before Christ, the Buddha was able to magnify within himself the reality of empty space. This was part of his great enlightenment. Emptiness waits, is receptive, gives no resistance, is spontaneously ready to accept what comes its way. The Buddha magnified emptiness for the benefit of all humanity, and we do well to carry out some of these practices of meditation to allow that emptiness, that sacred spaciousness, to open up within us. It might even change the way we experience Christ and Christmas.
So the next time someone tells you to keep the Christ in Christmas, maybe you could suggest that we also need to keep the Buddha in Christmas, and see how that goes over. They can live together as brothers, I’m pretty convinced.
These bodies of ours are instruments of magnification. What we magnify is what becomes larger because of our lives.
My soul magnifies anxiety. My soul magnifies pain. Our soul magnifies the beauty of art. My soul magnifies empty sacred space. My soul magnifies the Lord.
Lest we think this is primarily something of our own doing, it’s worth remembering that these are the words of a woman who is pregnant, whose body is undergoing processes over which she has very little control. I’ve not had this experience, but from what I gather, no pregnant woman feels that what is happening inside of her is completely a result of pure willpower and doing on her part. It’s much more a matter of being in awe of what this body is doing. Of what is happening, despite one’s ability or inability to make it all turn out right. It is this perfect combination of emptiness and will. It is a surrender to this greater force at work through you. It is mostly learning to be an awe-struck companion to this life that is forming inside you. Like Mary – the model and mother of all who are willing to allow God to be magnified through them. To become so willing is a significant part of our Advent journey.